BLOOMINGTON — Let it be pointed out that, on the night Tom Crean cemented his first-ever 3-0 start at Indiana, his team struggled.
The Hoosiers shot barely over 38 percent, Verdell Jones had more turnovers (7) than points (5) and Will Sheehey, of all people, starred. And for the briefest of moments, Indiana looked troubled, but it didn’t last.
This team is starting to build some constants, expected results upon which it can depend.
The defense continues to impress. Tuesday night, Indiana forced 23 turnovers and, while it also committed 17, won the points-off-turnovers battle 32-9. Mississippi Valley State shot just 34 percent overall and hit 7-of-21 threes, after shooting 10-of-17 in a near-upset against Georgia.
More than that, however — and as it has done in significant stretches this season — the Hoosiers’ defense covered when their offense was flagging. On a night where Christian Watford, Verdell Jones and Maurice Creek combined to shoot 9-of-31, their team rarely looked troubled, particularly in a dominant early second half.
Coming out of the break up just four, the Hoosiers limited their guests to just three points over the second half’s first 9 1/2 minutes, all while a 27-23 lead ballooned to 49-26.
“You’ve got to play through offensive lulls. You’ve got to play through bad offensive nights,” Crean said afterward. “To come out and play great team defense, to come out and get better defensively as the game goes on … that’s maturity.”
Watford also continues to be a rock. He still looks unsure of himself at times, growing into his new role operating along the wings and perimeter, but he hasn’t scored less than 17 points in any game — after a wildly impressive preseason — and is averaging eight rebounds per contest. Simply, he’s a kind of player Crean has never had at Indiana.
There are still flaws. The turnovers stand out, as does the lack of low-post production. Tom Pritchard, Bobby Capobianco and Derek Elston combined for 11 points Tuesday, a season high in three games for the trio.
And Elston left the floor with an apparent leg injury midway through the second half. He didn’t return, and Crean had no early word on his condition post-game.
But the post problems should be mitigated, at least somewhat, by the return of Guy-Marc Michel, whenever that may come. His size and apparent ability inside (based on early returns in scrimmages and whatnot) painted Michel as the most offensively gifted of IU’s big men, and his return ought to mark a serious gain for the Hoosiers.
(By the way, nothing new on the Michel-NCAA investigation front. All parties are radio silent, and that’s probably about the way it’s going to stay until some sort of conclusion is reached.
Said Capobianco, who himself had a strong Tuesday, scoring six and pulling down three boards: “We try to keep him focused and keep him going, and you know, that’s about as far as we can go right now, and that’s the most that we can do.”)
On Sunday, we talked about defensive identity, and how it might aid the Hoosiers this season. Now we’re seeing a greater overall identity, a defined semblance of a team that knows, at least vaguely, how to play to its strengths and what it wants/needs to do at any given moment.
It seems simple, but ought to be a luxury for anyone who’s watched this program since 2008. The Hoosiers are by no means a great team — far from it. But they are turning into a good team. And good teams generally win more than they lose.
“Almost to a man, every coach in there agreed that if we would have played this game a year ago, we would have lost this game. We would have been down 10 or 12 at half, and our maturity level wouldn’t have allowed us to win it,” Crean said.
“Our maturity level tonight had a lot to do with us winning.”